'Evil Dead': Sensational horror done well
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
While I'm not one of those people who's opposed to remakes on general principle (I'm a big fan of the 1961 version of "King of Kings," for instance), I, like most other sentient moviegoers, am not entirely sold on current trends in rebooting. And, superstitiously, I like to believe there's a special place in, um, hell, for the people responsible for the uniformly lame rethinks of the then-disreputable/now-classic edgy horror pictures from my own cinematic wonder years. Latter-day iterations of the likes of "Last House on the Left" and "The Hills Have Eyes" were craven (you'll excuse the term) white-bread cop-outs with slicker effects. Providence spared me from seeing any of the contemporary reboots of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and I'm not sorry. You get the idea. And on the other hand, there's John Carpenter's remake "The Thing." (Which was great ... and the excuse for a recent meh prequel.)
So it's kind of big news, for me at least, that the new "Evil Dead," adapted from the ultra-low budget 1981 Sam Raimi-directed gorefest, is not just not bad, but actually a pretty good horror movie in precisely the sensationalist sense of the original. Scary? Well, I'm old, and I've seen a lot, so I may be too jaded to judge that. But the movie is packed with jump-out-of-your seat moments, and beyond that, it has no problem with being completely disgusting. As when one character slips on a bathroom floor and cracks his head against the rim of a toilet seat, and it's then revealed that the thing he slipped on was a patch of skin that his girlfriend, who's having a little trouble with demonic possession, has just carved off of her face. Yuck.
The original film had its post-adolescent characters assembled at the soon to be mayhem-infested old cabin in the woods for recreational purposes. Here the characters are old, and somewhat estranged, friends gathered for a serious purpose: to detox Mia (Jane Levy), a sad young woman who's slipped back into a recurring drug addiction. Her pals Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are there despite having given intervention an unsuccessful shot before. New to the ritual is Mia's older brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), who hasn't "been there" for Mia in the past, and who's brought along his girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). Usually attempts to give this kind of material depth it doesn't really need falls flat, but here it works, not least because toughing it out for Mia's cold turkey provides a pretext for the characters not running like hell from the creepy cabin first thing. Although I have to admit that once I discovered the dead cats in the basement I would have revved up the SUV and hightailed Mia to Dr. Drew's joint, or something. That's just me.
If you know the original film, you know a good deal of the rest: demonic book, camera racing through the woods, black vomit, animated vines going where you don't want them, etc. Director Fede Alvarez, making his feature debut, abjures the self-consciously jokey slapstick that made the original such a bizarrely disconcerting experience. Instead he lays out a compendium of horror cinema's grievous bodily injury greatest hits. Movies nodded to include "The Toolbox Murders" (a nail gun attack, yikes!) and Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" (there's a reverse motion version of one of that film's most notorious gross-out effects). That the filmmakers chose to go analog with their special effects instead of slathering the screen with CGI gore really does make a difference: The shocks of this "Evil Dead" are more, um, visceral than you've seen in a while. If that sort of thing is your cup of meat, you definitely ought to check this out, even if you think you've got a remake allergy.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.